Summicrons -- Why the Three Dimensional Quality? : LUSENET : Leica Photography : One Thread

Liana [#21]

I've been shooting portraits with the 90mm and 50mm Summicrons for the better part of a year now, and I find that they have a "three dimensional" quality that is unique among all lenses I have tried. I used to shoot Canon primes, but the 85mm f/1.8 USM was "flat" by comparison. Understand that I do not mean contrast here, but the subtle rendering of the roundness of the human face. I recently bought into a Nikon F100 with 5 or 6 primes and, again, I find that although I get very good results with the Nikkors, they are similar to the Canon lenses in regard to "roundness."

Would anyone like to speculate as to why this is?

-- Peter Hughes (, March 01, 2002


Its not just the 'crons that have this wonderful quality. When I bought my first Leica I had the old 35mm/1.4 Summilux, and was delighted by the 3-dimensional quality I got from it compared to the Nikon 35/1.4 I'd used previously.

I later sold that lens to get the ASPH model, and although the new lens is wonderful, it isn't quite the same to my mind and I'm now on the lookout for a nice example of the old lens again.

As to why, you'd have to ask someone more knowledgeable than me in lens design. I think Leica historically left in some minor abberations which may contribute to the effect. But don't qquote me on that!!

-- Tim Franklin (, March 01, 2002.

My guess - I emphasize GUESS - is that the 3D effect is related to what I've perceived as better flare control. Better flare control results in richer colors, better shadow and highlight detail, and smoother tonal gradation.

This last item, smoother tonal gradation, along with "good" bokeh, probably contributes to the three-dimensional quality. BTW I've noticed this with the 400mm f/6.8 Telyt as well.

-- Douglas Herr (, March 01, 2002.

In one of his essays Erwin Puts offers the opinion that japanese lens designers over-emphasize contrast, with the implication that by doing this they are making their lenses seem sharper than they really are. At first I thought, "this is the usual Puts pseudo-science;" but in this case I think he's right. My 105 Nikkor AIS, whose design dates to the eairly 1950's, gives just this 3-D quality. My new 85 AF Nikkor, which is much sharper and contrastier, does not. And the results I've seem from the ultra sharp and contrasty Leica ASPH lenses suggests they don't have it either..........

-- david kelly (, March 01, 2002.

FWIW its not flare control.My Super Takumars are totally flare proof,but FLAT!My 50mm Collapsible summicron is flare danger yet has the 3D look.Go figger it out....seems the newest lenses do'nt have it or do they?

-- jason gold (, March 01, 2002.

My new 35 lux definitely renders a 3D quality that just pops out of the print or slide. Love it!

-- James (, March 01, 2002.

I beg to differ regarding the new lenses. I have not yet used my 21 asph enough to judge, but I use the Summicron 28 with delight and it definitely has that livestage reproduction like the 50. To my eyes, anyway. Might be biased, though :)

-- Stephane Bosman (, March 01, 2002.

I was shocked by looking thru a loupe at a Hasselblas slide a few years ago. Using one eye only, the image *pop out* like real. Later on, I took notice whenever I got such visual impact. My non- scientific conclusion so far is that by combining two effects you will have such visual perception: (1) The subject must be sharp and color must be vibrant (2) pleasant bokeh in the background.

The amount of bokeh needs to be just right. Using long lens with complete blury background often will lose it. Using 50mm lens with slightly larger aperature seems to be the key. I seldom get such feeling on a one hour lab print, more on the slide film (Velvia).

That's my feeling so far as to why this happen. I look forwards to other's experience.


-- Chi H (, March 01, 2002.

I'm going to speculate that it's the quality of the glass. I would be willing to bet that the glass used in Leica lenses probably cost as much as your typical Japanese lens. After all, your not just paying for assembly. And no, I don't think it's because Leica designs in aberations, I think this is just nonsense.

-- Glenn Travis (, March 01, 2002.

P.S. Very nice shot, and yes, I can see exactly what you're talking about.

-- Glenn Travis (, March 01, 2002.

Yeah, there is a word for it: plasticity.

-- Erik X (, March 01, 2002.

That is something unique in 35mm photography, I don't understand it tecnicaly, but agree with Tim about the use of aberrations as roundess enfasis, this is of my pictures the one that shows it better, made with a 50/2 D.R. at middle apertures (5.6).

-- r watson (, March 01, 2002.

Yes, I swear by the older lenses. Maybe its because of the thinner coatings that let more 'three-dimensional' light in, or are just better glass. I don't know, I'm not a lens designer, but I love the images they produce. Especially my 50 DR, I am impressed by its imaging. And this from a 40 year old lens!!! My newest version 35 'lux ASPH was expensively disappointing and got rid of it.

Old is better. Simple is Best. AGAIN

-- sparkie (, March 01, 2002.

Chi: the example portrait ( which is stunning!)is very 3-D yet there is no color and no background bokeh, so that can't be it..............

-- david kelly (, March 01, 2002.

dagnabbit der aint nuttin like da old lenses lemme tell ya! take it from this old timer ya green horns *grin*

-- James (, March 01, 2002.

Same here. I have the 4th generation 35mm Summicon-M and the three dimensional effect of this lens is amazing. And it's not just me who has noticed this. A while ago, a friend of mine was looking at a BW shot I had taken of a black cat sitting against a wooden fence. The cat looks like you could reach out and pet it. It's amazing.


-- Feli (, March 01, 2002.

>I have the 4th generation 35mm Summicon-M and the three dimensional effect of this lens is amazing.

Wahoo!! I just bought this old stager last week. The guy in the shop described it as the "bokeh king" so what could I do!

-- Tim Franklin (, March 01, 2002.

Like most of the other posts above, I don't know why for sure either, but IMO it is due to the incredible tonal-range that the Leica lenses offer. Now weather or not that is because contrast is lower, and resolution is higher, I don't know. And heck, all that really matters is that the difference is there! And ain't it sweet!


-- Jack Flesher (, March 01, 2002.

3D quality??? that is just something made up my leica-maniacs to make themselves feel superior. What they are referring to when they talk about a special Leica look/glow and 3D is "better sharpness". That's all it is. Once you pass the 85mm focal length, everything seems flatter due to the lack of depth of field.

My Leica pics have better 3D effect now becasue my 35 Lux Asph is much sharper than anything I've ever used in the past. If you want the best portrait lens outside Leica and Zeiss, it is the Nikon AF 85mm f/1.4D lens. Forget the MF version which I owned, which was not even close. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L lens is a ripper too.

I recently bought a Leica 90 Apo which is surely better than any other lens i've ever used. It is better due to better sharpness and bo-ke. Roundness? I don't quite understand that one. But I challenge anyone to come up with a sharper lens!

-- Kristian (, March 01, 2002.

For a while in between I resolved not to give in to this Leica 'roundness' mysticism, but while viewing my latest batch of slides, all portraits from my 50/2, the thought idly crossed my mind that the pictures are very three-dimensional. Yup, the effect is there, unmistakeably. Many of my Nikkor pictures are the as nice or better as images, but that funny little effect is quite absent. Dunno what it is, its all quite irrational and unmeasurable, I suspect.

-- Mani Sitaraman (, March 01, 2002.

Chi: just to document the opposite to what you say (nothing personal, of course; I'm just trying to help make things clear): this photo is a B&W and has no vibrant colours, it is not sharp by any standard and the bokeh is at front insted of at the rear. But still I think the 3D effect is present: look at the glases, please; specially the one at right. BUT the lens actually was a 50mm Cron and apperture was f4, very much as per your guidelines. David points to the same facts, of course, and Peter's photo is a better example, by far, of course.

And Kristian: this 50 years old 50mm Cron may have been sharp when just born, of course, but not when hand held and specially not now after so many cleaning marks on its front element. Though I have no answer for Peter's question, I don't think the answer is that simple either.

Great photo, Roberto ! ! What is the whiter area on the left lower corner? something on the foreground? light leak . . .?

Regards, friends !


-- Iván Barrientos M (, March 01, 2002.

Iván, it is a table cloth from anothe table.

-- r watson (, March 01, 2002.

"Lo sospeché desde un principio . . . ! !"

Thanks, Roberto


-- Iván Barrientos M (, March 01, 2002.

GOOD question!

Looking at the posted pictures as examples (as well as having seem this in my own images) I would throw out the following possibilities as contributing to the 3D look:

1. Edge definition - which is not quite the same thing as sharpness but may be closer to micro-contrast. As in the table legs in Roberto's shot. They 'pop' against the pavement in the background.

2. The transitional bokeh - as in Peter's portraits - the stuff that is just going out of focus retains its light/dark contrast while blurring - sort of a 'soft' version of 1).

3. Overall tonal control - as mentioned, some other manufacturers pump up over-all contrast (including recent Zeiss - so this is not Japan vs. Germany) through gobs of coating and other ideas to improve apparent sharpness - ever printed a slightly fuzzy picture on grade 4 paper to make it look 'sharper'? Leica, by comparison, has the real thing - edge definition - so they can keep the macro-contrast smoother and gentler.

4. Mix of aberrations - Erwin has a great essay somewhere on his site about (I think) depth of field - but the title may be something else. In it he makes the point that all light hitting the film travels in cones. When the tip of the cone hits the film, the image is focused; when some other part of the cone hits the film the image is out of focus - and the SHAPE (cross-section) of that cone is determined by the residual aberrations (spherical, coma, etc.) the lens designer left in in order to correct something else. Leica designers - and esp. the sainted Walter Mandler, who designed all the pre-APO 'crons - just seem to pick a different palette of aberrations to take out or leave in.

5) Finally - sharpness wide open - at least near the center of the frame. When we can shoot wide open without losing sharpness or much contrast, the image looks more like what our eyes see naturally - a sharp center of interest with most everything else fading away. It isn't the whole story - since I see the 3D effect even in 21 shots where there is not much focus fall-off - but it contributes to the 'look'.

-- Andy Piper (, March 02, 2002.

OK - here are three more examples

Trio with mouse

35 Summicron at f/2 - tonal range in faces, plus the in/out of focus effect, plus edge definition even wide open, all contribute to any 3D effect visible.


21 Elmarit - here the primary contributors are edge definition (pearl necklace, e.g.) and tonal range, especially in the skirts, blouses and skin. Everything's sharp, so focus/aberration/bokeh are non-issues. But even the variety of trees in the background seem to reach forward.

Chinese New Year

35 Summicron. The glowing jewelry in Peter's portrait reminded me of the dragon's decorations in this new shot, which have the same pearlescent quality. Again, I see tonal rendition, edge definition, and a central focused area surrounded by gently increasing blur as contributing to the 'look', if any.

In this shot there is a very 'liquid' quality to the OOF crowd in the background - which I attribute to tonal control plus those 'cones' of aberrations spraying across the film - from the "king of bokeh".

-- Andy Piper (, March 02, 2002.

Here's a link to the Erwin Puts essay.

Whether you call it "the caustic surface" or the abberrations palette or Bokeh - lens designers CAN (in fact, HAVE TO) influence how a lens lays down the image in more ways than just contrast and resolution. Obviously Leicas designers have chosen slightly different paths along the way.

-- Andy Piper (, March 02, 2002.

This 3D thing is all in the eyes of the beholder. I see it in slides and prints shot with a wide array of lenses from a wide array of suppliers. Gimme in focus red on blurred green background on Velvia, and I'll show you systematic 3D effects....

If the light is right, if the distance to background is right, if the colors are right, if the angle of view suits the subject, you'll get that "wow" effect from almost any piece of contemporary hardware (OK exclude plastic compacts and lowest end of 3d party zooms). That is what some of the examples posted here show. They do not show "Leica".

This blah serves to justify the investment or the idiosyncracies of using Leica in 2002. I have other ways of justifying that to myself and to those parties who fear about my spending sprees, but that is off this topic...

Erwin the Puts is right: the most recent Leica lenses might make a noticeable difference on high res film, shot from heavy tripod at fast shutter speed. The rest is daydream...

-- Jacques (, March 02, 2002.

I guess I am a daydream believer...

-- Mani Sitaraman (, March 02, 2002.

Well, don't Monkee around with success.

-- MikeP (, March 02, 2002.

Peter and other poster's image are excellent. However I don't particularly see where the 3D comes from

Viewing with one eye only, any photograph, taken with any camera has a 3D look.

Is the 3D look you mentioned the same thing as when you view the picture with only one eye (one eye closed, or covered ) ?

If that is the case, then probably one eye becomes more dominant....

-- martin tai (, March 02, 2002.

I don't have any idea why the lenses do it, but one of the more interesting things about my total switch to digital printing is that this effect is quite easy to achieve through the careful application of curves in Photoshop, leading me to think that it has a lot to do with the rendition of tonal values, especially at the far ends of the scale. What I've been forcing in Photoshop, and what I see in Peter's photo, is a lot of highlight (and shadow, too, but not in his photo) contrast.

-- Michael Darnton (, March 02, 2002.

In Peter's photo I think it's the lighting, combined with the lens' ability to smoothly manage the contrast. The highlight on the hand makes it pop out against her shoulder. With a lens that can seemlessly handle the subtleties of contrast, the effect comes through. With a lens that tends to block these subtleties up (even on a micro scale) the effect is watered down or maybe lost. Conversely, even a Leica lens can't do much with a poorly lit subject.

-- Ken Shipman (, March 02, 2002.

I can not agree with you Ken, the shadow or low ligth penetration of leica lenses, make low ligth-contrast images gain contrast, I have seen it over and over, and not only in photography lenses, leica scopes and well known for that.

On the other hand that capability of leica lenses to make a 3D efect, is the same that makes leica lenses be second or third in flat optical tests, in wich Zeiss usualy comes up.

-- r watson (, March 02, 2002.

When I say "poorly lit subject" I'm not referring to low light levels. I'm referring to unworkable light or light at bad angle to the subject - for example front-on flat light. In those situations it would be tough for any lens to pull magic out of the subject. In my opinion the oblique light in Peter's photo, combined with the lens' ability to handle the image, is more responsible for the 3-D effect.

-- Ken Shipman (, March 02, 2002.

oh! I see what you meant...

-- r watson (, March 02, 2002.

I'd agree with Michael D. and Ken S. (if I didn't already). Lighting clearly helps define 3D forms, in addition to anything the lens is doing. So does image tonality, regardless of whether it's there in the negative or brought out through careful printing or PhotoShopping.

I got my Leicas long after I gave up darkroom printing, but the Leica (esp. 'cron) negatives/chromes are certainly (on average) easier to scan than anything I used previously - and at least some of the traditional printers here and elsewhere have commented on how easy Leica negatives are to print.

I think there's a chain of events here:

Lenses with outstanding edge definition and contrast can have lower macro-contrast and still look 'sharp'.

This makes for more controlled negatives with a longer tonal range and less 'blow-out' in the highlights. Especially with the somewhat contrasty directional light (chiaroscuro?) that enhances the representation of 3D forms.

Which allows us to maintain nice straight-line separation in the midtones/shadows, instead of compressing them when trying to get overly-bright highlights under control.

Which (in combination with some other optical stuff) makes for a rich 3D look.

It all contributes.

-- Andy Piper (, March 02, 2002.

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